Health Awaits: Cro-Mags’ Harley Flanagan on Being In the Best Shape of His Life at 54

Welcome to Health Awaits, a new Decibel column devoted to fitness. While fitness may not seem very rock ‘n’ roll, we’re not getting any younger here. Everything hurts more now (especially going out to shows on weeknights). We have more responsibilities than our younger, invincible selves, and we owe it to our loved ones to stay healthy.

For this first edition, we talked to Harley Flanagan of hardcore punk pioneers Cro-Mags. His autobiography Hard-Core: Life of My Own is a journey of copious substance abuse and violence, tempered by Hare Krishna spirituality and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. (Flanagan is an instructor at Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City).

Having just turned 54, Flanagan may be in the best shape of his life. On most days of the week, he slings 45 pounds of gear into a bag, power walks to the park, and works out there. We asked him how he does it.

How does it feel to be 54?
It feels amazing, because who knew I’d live anywhere near this long. I have to attribute that to having been mostly vegetarian since 1981 or 2. That’s the one thing that’s been really consistent despite all the other ups and downs in my physical and mental states.

If I’d known I’d live this long, I might have done things a little differently. I might have taken a little better care of myself. But honestly, I don’t feel like I’m any worse off. Obviously, I did a lot of drugs and a lot of drinking and a lot of self-abuse. I really think that being mostly vegetarian for all that time countered some of the abuse that I was doing, the toxins I was putting in myself.

But this is just me. I’m not one of these vegan “rah-rah” people. When I was in Rikers [Island], I ate chicken. What was I supposed to do, not eat anything? You do what you gotta do.

If I lived in the woods, and I had to kill something to eat it, I fucking would. There’s nothing immoral about survival. It just becomes immoral when it’s this mass killing machine of animal brutality and mass poisoning of humans. That’s when it’s ugly. I don’t ever hate on anybody who hunts and eats what they kill.

How did you become a vegetarian?
It was really more about health reasons. I just started thinking about what I was putting into my body. I was looking around at the people around me—not just on the [music] scene, but society in general—looking at the relation between what they’re consuming, and not just what they look like, but how they’re behaving. You can sort of see a direct connection from one to the other.

What happened with the whole Hare Krishna thing was that I was homeless, living in squats and stuff. The Hare Krishnas were serving free food all the time. The Seventh-day Adventists were another religious group that serves vegetarian food. I was taking advantage of all those places, because most of the food programs and homeless shelters served meat.

In your book, you mention Whole Foods as an example of the gentrification of New York.
It’s not so much that I’m against the store. I actually don’t mind the store. There’s not very much left that isn’t Whole Foods or Starbucks or Planet Fitness.

If someone wants to eat healthy and they don’t want to go to Whole Foods, what would you suggest?
I’m not saying, don’t go there. I’m very lucky. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of vegetable stands and fruit stands. I live in a very Dominican neighborhood, and for whatever reason, they love their fresh vegetables and their fresh fruit. I guess it’s an island thing.

I used to love drinking soda. I stopped doing that a long time ago. I just try to make sure that I don’t get a lot of sugar in my diet. Honestly, that’s more for political reasons than for health reasons. I just think that the sugar industry is really fucked up. Same reason I don’t buy anything that’s Coca-Cola products or Nestlé products. I know ultimately that no matter what you eat, somebody’s getting fucked. It’s impossible to not leave a footprint. But we do our best in this house.

What’s your diet like these days?
I usually don’t like to eat in the early part of the day, so I have a shake with protein powder and fruit, oat milk, or almond milk. That holds me off till later.

Now it’s so easy to be a vegetarian. You’ve got all these different fake meat products. We didn’t have all that stuff back then. It’s really easy to eat well now. When I was training jiu-jitsu and competing regularly, I did start eating turkey and fish to see if I would feel any increase in strength after a period of high protein intake. But I did not feel any substantial increase in weight, size or strength, endurance, speed, or anything else. So, I went back to the diet I preferred, and that is what I have stuck with more or less.

My wife is a great cook, so I’m really lucky. My average food might be pasta, grains, vegetables, salads, or any number of the things you will find in the upcoming cookbook by Laura Lee Flanagan, Hardcore Vegetarian: Feeding Harley Flanagan. With that book and a good exercise program, you should have no problem getting or staying in great shape.

photo: Maurice Nunez

As we get older, we lose muscle mass. At 54, you’re as big as you’ve ever been. How do you do it?
The least I weigh is 155. That’s what I weighed when I was in my teens. When you see the old Cro-Mags stuff, that’s what my weight was then. So now I’m about 165. The thing is, for me, I have to work out in order to put on muscle or get bigger. Other people exercise to lose weight. Because of my diet, I have to bust my ass just to put it on. That is why I exercise almost every day. I take days off just to heal.

Melle Mel, who is a bodybuilder and is much older than me, said to me, “At our age, it’s better to do less weight and more reps, because any kind of injury or setback takes longer to recover from,” and that changed my approach to working out. He is so right. So many times, when I was trying to push through to a new plateau, I would wind up injuring myself and setting myself back instead of pushing forward.

How do you deal with injuries at your age?
I try to do stuff that’s low impact on my joints. At my age, I have some old injuries that have caught up with me. One of my knees bothers me here and there. One of my shoulders bothers me once in a while.

I had a major back surgery a few years ago—eight screws put in my neck. That took me almost two years to recover from. Then I got hit with another surgery—my elbow and my wrist. After my first surgery, I couldn’t even lift my hand straight up over my head. I couldn’t extend my arm in front of me. I couldn’t move my fingers. I didn’t know if I’d be able to play bass again. But I was back on the road three months to the day after that surgery, playing.

Every time I get injured, I have to start back from zero. That’s the hardest part. But if you can beat that, then you can fucking conquer anything. When I start feeling bad for myself, I look at the examples of some people out there that inspire me in those areas. Have you ever heard of the guitarist Django Reinhardt?

He had, like three working fingers. And he was ripping. KILLING it. So, when I started having issues with some of my fingers, when they weren’t working as well as they used to because of the surgeries, I’m like, “You know what, fuck you, stop fucking crying here. Look at Django. That motherfucker shreds. Get back up on your shit. Maybe you won’t do it exactly the same as you did it—but guess what, maybe you’ll do it BETTER. It might be harder for you to do, but you might find a way to rock that shit EVEN HARDER.”

You have to get into the mindset of, “I’m not competing with anybody else. I’m competing with myself.” At my age, I’m not trying to go out and win world championships. You gotta be the best you. That’s all we can do. We can’t be the best somebody else.

Flanagan with Master Renzo Gracie

Walk us through your workouts.
My average workout includes working with resistance bands, doing things like military press squats and different pulling exercises, shoulder shrugs, pushups, pull-ups, hanging leg lifts, sit-ups, curls, and shadow boxing with egg weights. They’re weights that fit in the palm of your hand. Because they’re not bulky and big, the movements you can do with them are very natural. You’re not compensating for dumbbells or kettlebells. You don’t have these big things attached to your hand that you’re trying not to smack yourself in the head with.

Because I’m still coming back from these surgeries, I don’t feel like I need or want to do heavy weights of any kind. I’m more about good form and repetition than anything else. I use egg weights that are four pounds in my hands, and I just shadow box. Four pounds isn’t a lot, but you throw a couple hundred punches with four pounds in your hand? You are going to FEEL that. And you’re going to feel it in functional ways, because the movements are movements that you’re actually doing in a fight or even just in a situation where you’re extending or pushing things.

Recently I got the Iron Neck, which I love. It’s for neck strength. After my neck surgery, I wanted to build up my neck to support the work that they did in there. And the stronger your neck is, the more it can prevent concussions and other sports injuries. So, it’s good to have a strong neck.

I don’t have a set number of reps or sets that I do. I usually just work till failure and keep going from one exercise to another. I do a minimum of three sets of every exercise, up to five or more depending on how I feel. I switch up my routine every few weeks just to keep it fresh.

Some days I push myself a little harder. Some days I push myself a little less. But the idea is to keep doing it all the time, no matter what. As we start getting older, if we don’t use our muscles, they’re going to wither. You don’t have to go bananas, but you have to use them. And especially for those of you who have injuries, and you’re really disheartened, you’re mentally broken – man, start light and work your way back up.

For someone starting from ground zero, who’s been on the couch and eats badly, what would you tell them?
Stop buying soda. That’s huge. I know that’s really hard for low-income families, because the soda industry really fucks with us. They make it easier for you to go buy a big bottle of soda, because it’s cheaper than buying juice or water. But soda is a fucking killer. Try to avoid all that corn fructose shit.

And do a little bit of exercise. Start doing some pushups every day, if that’s all you can do. And I will say to everybody, get some resistance bands. I bring them with me everywhere. Right now, I could be sitting here in this chair, doing a curl with my band with my foot holding it down.

You just have to start, and stay somewhat consistent. Keep learning a couple new exercises. Find things that don’t suck to do. A lot of people deal with depression, too, so it’s really hard to get yourself back up off your ass, especially with this whole COVID quarantine shit. But when you find yourself just sitting on the couch just being depressed, watching Netflix and eating popcorn and doing nothing, fucking do 15 pushups, if that’s all you can do. Fucking do 10. Do that three fucking times. Then go back to being a lazy fuck. [Laughs]

I appreciate you taking the time to talk.
This is a really important story for me. Health is a big issue. I’m 54, and I’m feeling pretty fucking good. I could keep going like this for quite some time.

with son Jonah Odin Flanagan (l)